John P. MccCarthy
OnStage New York Critic
It’s a cardinal rule of arts criticism that a reviewer never tells prospective audience members how they ought to react to a given work. Rules are made to be broken however.
If you come away from Westchester Broadway Theatre’s exuberant production of “Mamma Mia” without a smile on your face, there’s something wrong with you.
Never mind if ABBA, the Swedish pop band from the 1970s & ‘80s, isn’t your cup of tea or if musicals aren’t your thing. Yes, the songs are drippy strands of string cheese that link disco with Glam Rock. And the book may be a clumsy effort to celebrate sexual freedom, modestly unconventional lifestyle choices, and progressive ideas about what constitutes a family.
Still, the show is a quasi-Dionysian ball of feel-good fluff. Resistance is pointless. So unless you’re a hopeless curmudgeon, genuine misanthrope, or true anarchist, please do yourself a favor and just go with it.
“Mamma Mia!” opened in London in 1999, ran on Broadway from 2001-2015, and was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep in 2008. It marks Westchester Broadway Theatre’s 200th mainstage production and, in both form and content, it’s ideally suited to a dinner theater venue. Its sensibility is mildly titillating and slightly subversive, yet safe enough for a wide cross-section of theatergoers.
For its version, WBT has employed a high percentage of artists who are working with the company for the first time, both on stage and behind the scenes. The results are impressive. Director and choreographer Mark Martino, a WBT neophyte with a long list of credits, efficiently presents the action using tight blocking and streamlined tableaus. There’s not a lot of extraneous business or wasted movement. Associate director and choreographer Elise Kinnon – who performs the role of sensual man-eater Tanya – is another talented WBT first-timer whose work is sharp.
Many of the cast members have appeared in “Mamma Mia!” before and their familiarity with the material no doubt contributes to the tautness of the production, which does equal justice to the show’s somewhat ribald humor and ear-worm musicality.
WBT veteran Michelle Dawson plays Donna, the middle-aged single mom whose twenty-year-old daughter, Sophie, is about to get married at the hotel she owns on a picturesque Greek island. Sophie, portrayed by the sweet-voiced and altogether charming Mariah MacFarlane, doesn’t know who her father is and secretly invites all three of the men Donna was seeing around the time she was conceived.
The daddy troika turns up, as do Donna’s pals Tanya and Rose (Jennifer Swiderski), and multiple takes on romance and relationships are then revealed in the run-up to Sophie tying the knot with her beau Sky (Nathan Cockroft).
The song line-up will ring bells for anyone over the age of 40. Standouts include: “Winner Takes It All”, “Voulez-Vous”, “Take A Chance on Me”, and “Dancing Queen”. The athletic dance moves are embodied with aplomb by a terrific ensemble in which bare-chested young men seem to outnumber the female chorines. The production takes full advantage of the fact that the Mediterranean setting provides ample opportunity for males to strip to the waist. Alongside Nathan Cockroft as the groom-to-be, Connor Wince appears to revel in his moments in the sun playing the hotel’s frisky bartender, Pepper.
This display of well-waxed beefcake is appropriate considering the show focuses on the female point of view and the ramifications, both welcome and unwelcome, of the feminist movement. The three older men – the contenders in Sophie’s paternity sweepstakes – are not exposed in the same way. They stick to dealing with emotional awakenings, as do the women, and aren’t quite as compelling. Kilty Reidy telegraphs Harry’s big revelation about his sexual orientation, Brent Bateman’s accent as Aussie adventure writer Bill comes and goes, and Xander Chauncey is relatively stiff as Donna’s soul mate, Sam.
Musically, the show sounds richer than several recent WBT productions. Not only does the score lend itself to being performed offstage by a minimalist band, first-time WBT Music Director Eric Alsford makes the smart decision to have the solos and duets backed-up by unseen vocalists. The colorfully authentic costumes and the clean, well-calibrated set contribute to the festive atmosphere, which reaches a crescendo following the curtain calls during the show’s signature sing- and dance-along.
A lot has changed in the eighteen or so years since “Mamma Mia!” was conceived – and, of course, even more since the period in which ABBA flourished and the show harkens back to. So there’s no doubt it’s tame by today’s societal and theatrical standards. But a big part of the reason it triggers so much joy is that it’s unobjectionable. It has enough of a serious side, but at bottom it’s silly, escapist entertainment that bottles the band’s fizzy popular appeal for the stage.
“Mamma Mia!” runs through June 25 at Westchester Broadway Theatre, One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY. Photos by John Vecchiolla